Mike Noble and Jodie McNee by Keith Pattison

All harmless fun?

Game – Almeida Theatre, until 04 April 2015 (Tickets)

This review contains spoilers. If you want to know nothing about Game then read no further.Mike Noble and Jodie McNee by Keith Pattison

Civilian Theatre rarely bothers with spoiler announcements as it usually possible to talk about a play without needing to go into any specific elements that would ruin the element of surprise. However the Almeida has been tight lipped about the production and going in blind – having avoided reviews entirely – really enhanced the impact of the show.

Game is Mike Bartlett’s follow-up to the crowd-pleasing smash-hit King Charles III, which started life at the Almeida before setting up camp in the West End. Where  King Charles III paid homage to Shakespeare’s history plays, was written in iambic verse and clocked in at over two hours, Game more than nods towards Big Brother, is written in modern English and is wrapped-up in less than hour.

However they share a common theme in that they both exist in an off-kilter near-future world where events occurring seem unlikely but are not impossible to imagine. In both Bartlett displays an interest in society’s relationship with privacy. In King Charles III we see the issue played out on the grand scale – a ‘great men of history’ perspective that sees change arriving from the top down.

In Game we see another reality; a constant chipping away of our notion of privacy from the bottom-up. It is a world where entrepreneurs continually test the boundaries of acceptability until we have reduced people to the same voyeuristic abstraction that we hold for animals in the zoo. The starting point may be hard to pin down but Big Brother will be remembered as a watershed moment; the point where we realised that people would volunteer to be placed under constant surveillance to entertain the masses, and the masses tuned watched in their droves.

Game takes this moment and follows the idea to its natural conclusion. Eventually watching isn’t enough. Voting people out satisfied needs for a while but, as I’m A Celebrity proved, given the choice we prefer to also have the option of meting out ritual humiliations on those who take part. John (Daniel Cerqueira) keeps prodding at those boundaries; initially renting out a house to a couple where it appears we get to watch them live their normal lives, before it becoming apparent that they are in fact prey for those who can afford it.

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Big Brother: Doubleplusgood?

1984 – Headlong @ Almeida Theatre, until 29 March 2014 (Tickets)

In the accompanying text to Headlong’s adaptation of 1984, they state that ‘Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan […] explore how Orwell’s novel is as applicable to the here and now as it ever was’ whilst the online trailer (below) draws on quotes from Bradley Manning and The Telegraph to make a clear link between the book and the current debate over surveillance culture.

In light of this the most surprising, and indeed pleasing, thing about Headlong’s production is how little it explicitly aligns itself with a modern world environment. Whilst Icke and MacMillan have played with form and function to add to a richer audience experience than would be allowed from a book that channels itself through the perspective of just one character, it is set within a world that far more closely resembles that imagined by Orwell than our current technology driven present.

This comes as a relief, as the idea of merging Orwell with modern society seems wholly too obvious and more than a little trite for a company who have carved out a reputation for purposefully innovative takes on 1984_Image_Headlong at the Almeida heavyweight texts. Orwell’s book may have something to say about the dangers of allowing any one party to exert control over society but to try and parallel this with the use of modern surveillance techniques in democracies is facile and only serves to undermine the potency of his argument.

Indeed if the examples that Runciman highlights in his review of The Snowdon Files is an accurate picture then it may be possible for governments to gather information on pretty much anyone but the idea that they have any sort of competence to use it to manage history and through it control society comes across as laughable. The reality is that our general contempt for politicians is so great that the only way that they could get us to believe that 2 + 2 = 5 is to insist upon us that 2 + 2 = 4.

Headlong 1984The entire existence of the internet – and with it websites like Wikileaks – serves to undermine the notion that Orwell’s book could become reality in a society as it currently exists. The world is too globally networked to allow a political organisation to control the flow of information in the way that Orwell envisioned; even in countries that use firewalls it is still relatively easy to get around censored sites. Big Brother may well be watching us but that does not mean that Big Brother is controlling us.

So it comes as a relief to discover that the computer on which Winston toils away to reshape history is an item that seems strangely out-of-kilter within Chloe Lamford’s set design, which evokes that late-Communist feel of a country industrially advanced but only holding its infrastructure together with threads. The communal canteen at the Ministry could be from any 1970’s public sector building whilst the grainy feel of the video through which we watch Winston and Julia’s secret trysts, and the voyeuristic overtones it brings with it,  inevitably recalls The Conversation and the paranoia that runs through Alan J.Pakula’s The Parallax View and Klute.

That we may be reminded of the likes of Warren Beatty and Jane Fonda brings home a deliberate and brutal reality about the lives of Winston and Julia; that ordinary people, the archetypal Party drones, are rather bland and uninteresting, that desires and thoughts are mostly mundane and not the unique, world-changing inspiration that we like to believe. They may yearn for change but they will make do with chocolate and real coffee.

As we rail isolated against the system and plot great change from within who would want to admit to being more like Winston, with his ill-fitting vest tops and sweaty lank hair nervily considering whether or not to write a diary, rather than Beatty’s journalist, immaculately coiffured and square-jawed, uncovering conspiracies that go all the way to the top.

All of this is brilliantly exposed by O’Brien (Tim Dutton) who shows Winston the sad truth about his grand love affair; its furtive and grubby nature feeding a narrative that saw their radicalism only leading as far as their own desires. O’Brien levels the charge of solipsism at Winston, and the real terror of Headlong’s production is the struggle to disagree with the accusation. Their love, so important and all-consuming moments before, now seems so small; the world may have moved for them but they did not move the world even an inch.

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Watch the trailer